The Trans-Atlanticist Podcast Features Sortition

Antoine Vergne (of Mission Publique) and I were invited guests on the American cultural center Hamburg’s podcast for two episodes over the last two weeks.

The discussion was much too short to be anything new to regular readers of EbL, but I wanted to post it as another sign of the mainstream acceptance of the idea of sortition. Another disclaimer, the Amerikazentrum is a propaganda outfit for the US & German foreign ministries. So, as expected, the framing of the show starts with cliched talking points about Brexit, Ukraine, autocracy v. democracy, etc…

I think the discussion went slightly beyond the “representation” argument. In particular, Antoine made some interesting points about the non-adversarial nature of assemblies as compared to referenda. Quite interesting for me was his story about how he happened upon “Stochacracy.” As an undergraduate, I believe, he wrote a research paper that ended with the line: “Stochocrats of the world unite!”

My own intervention was not particularly interesting but I tried to reference a variety of literature including democratic critiques of allotted minipulbics in the show notes.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Let me know your thoughts, and perhaps we could crowd source a list of recent podcasts & videos on sortition.

14 Responses

  1. Here are the show notes.

    US Citizen Juries/Assemblies

    Eugen, OR Citizen Panel on Housing:

    Michigan’s Lottery-based Independent Citizens’ Redistricting Commission:

    Center for New Democratic Processes (formerly the Jefferson Center):

    US Organizations advocating for minipublics etc.

    Democracy Without Elections:

    Healthy Democracy:

    Belgian Permanent Citizens’ Council:

    DE Citizen Juries/Buergerraete/Citizens’ Assemblies:

    Recent/Contemporary Buergerraete (non-exhaustive list):

    Losland (lot-land in English):

    Mehr Demokratie:

    German Citizens’ Assembly on Climate:

    Critiques of elections:

    Against Elections, David Van Reybrouck:

    Rebooting Democracy, Manuel Arriaga:

    Arguments for sortition

    Open Democracy, Helene Landemore:

    Hope for Democracy, Gastil and Knobloch:

    Types of minipublics pdf (frp, New Democracy Foundation in Australia)

    Critiques of sorition

    Democracy without Shortcuts, Christina LaFont:

    Do-It-Yourself Democracy, Caroline Lee:

    Legislate by Lot, John Gastil et. al.

    Political Agoraphobia

    Hatred of Democracy, Jacques Ranciere:

    Politics in the Pluriverse, Kennan Ferguson:

    Podcasts & Podcast Series


  2. An optimistic point brought up by Antoine, who has now been a practitioner in the field for about a decade the French Citizens’ Convention on Climate marks a turning point in the use of allotted bodies. The very fact that so many interests tried to influence or spin it for their own purposes is proof that citizens’ assemblies are taken seriously by power. This means, at least in France, sortition has entered a new phase in the public’s perception—a challenge as well as cause for some celebration.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Ahmed,

    Thanks for this post. I have so far listened to the first episode. You are certainly striking a less dreary tone in the podcast than in your latest comments here. Personally, I occupy a middle ground between those two: I think adopting sortition as a tool of democratic power is going to be an uphill battle, with the elected and other elites resisting and undermining the effort all the way. But on the other hand, I don’t think that all is lost. The crisis the existing system is experiencing is a real opportunity for democratization, and there is no reason to suppose the crisis will arrive at a resolution any time soon.

    More specifically regarding the points made in the podcast. I find the argumentation for sortition counter-productively diffuse. It is important in my opinion to avoid various current false arguments for sortition and focus squarely on the clash between elites and the people (the proverbial 1% vs. the 99%). Sortition’s promise is to empower normal people – representing their own values and interests – displacing the electoral elites who are very effective in representing their own values and interests which are antithetical to those of the majority.

    The problem with the Brexit referendum, for example, is not primarily that it did not take place in a deliberative setting (there may be a bit of that, but it is secondary). But that the agenda “remain vs. leave” was set by the elite, and either way the elite would stay in charge.

    Hammering this point over and over, would, in my opinion, be more effective than making a large offering of arguments, many of which are far from convincing.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Very strong point. That’s my feeling too. My anti demophobia / anti political agoraphobia sentiment was a gesture in this direction, and I also think that much of the “representativeness” argument also comes down to anti elitism. But you’re correct that dancing around the point dilutes the force of the argument. It’s also easy to fall into the sortition / delineation as antidote to “extremism” or “polarization” trap. Those are actually forms of elitism or political agoraphobia in disguise. The people are “extreme” or “polarized” is just another elitist myth, and perhaps a comforting way for the managerial class to avoid confronting the oligarchic nature of so-called “liberal democracy” and for the comfortable classes in the West to avoid thinking about the hard questions of their complicity in imperialism-neocolonialism-capitalism.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Ahmed and Yoram – May I remind you that a referendum at the initiative of the government (plebiscite) is regarded by most “direct democracy” proponents as a “non democratic” tool. It is in most cases an instrument of dictators. Therefore we make a distinction between a plebiscite and a “referendum at citizen’s initiative”. Also the facultative referendum (against a law accepted by parliament) is at citizen’s initiative. There are however some exceptions where government has the obligation to start a referendum (government proposal to change the constitution, international agreement, urgent law). That said, the Brexit referendum is an argument against the plebiscite, it does not exist, for example, in the Swiss political system.

    More or less the same is happening with sortition. Not all examples of the use of sortition (in short: small samples of volunteers with a manual selection by specialists, with an element of sortition) are acceptable in the political field and more a danger to the sortition system instead of an advantage. And certainly not acceptable when such systems are entering the legislative environment, which is coercive for all of us. Even more when the people has no means at all to react (facultative referendum).


  6. Anon (Antoine?):> Not all examples of the use of sortition (in short: small samples of volunteers with a manual selection by specialists, with an element of sortition) are acceptable in the political field and more a danger to the sortition system instead of an advantage. And certainly not acceptable when such systems are entering the legislative environment, which is coercive for all of us. [my emphasis]

    Absolutely. As the state is a compulsory mode of association, its governance (including the service terms for statistically representative juries) has to be equally mandatory. Voluntarism is the characteristic of civil, not political, society. This is all bog-standard Oakeshottian political theory.


  7. > “referendum at citizen’s initiative”

    The phenomenon of obsession with referenda is an anti-electoralist reflex which does not stand theoretical or empirical examination. In fact, as both theory and experience show, the “popular initiative” process suffers from essentially the same problems as do elections. Like elections, the popular initiative process is an instance of mass politics.

    (In addition, unlike elections, referenda are much too blunt a political instrument to base any system of government upon.)


  8. Yoram, indeed no system is perfect. We need to look at the advantages and disadvantages of all those systems before we can make a choice. And one of the advantages of the referendum system is that it has a long and worldwide record of application with good and bad examples.


  9. Hi Ahmed,

    I now listened to the second episode.

    Your point regarding democracy being more than “problem solving” is very important. As you say, thinking about democracy as problem solving implies a technocratic view of society. According to this view, which is convenient for the ruling elite and for electoralism, all ends are agreed upon and the challenge is merely about finding the means, and thus politics is largely about competence and avoiding corruption. Contrary to this view, democracy, of course, is primarily about ends – what kind of society we want to build.

    However, I think that your “Arendtian” description of deliberation as necessary for “becoming fully human” is problematic. It seems to require a process of mass participation. In this process each citizen is constantly involved in deliberation which, beyond being necessary for having their say in politics, is a good on its own, for without it citizens are not “fully human”.

    The first problem with this view is that it asserts that most citizens are currently “not fully human”. This is not only offensive, but patronizing. Presumably the political philosophers, who are already constantly engaged in political deliberations, are among the minority who are already fully human, while the masses need to be redeemed?
    A second problem with this view is that as an ideal constant deliberation (in the intensive and formal form envisioned, rather than in the casual and informal form that we all engage in constantly) is often boring and pointless. Why would we want to spend our time discussing various issues that are of little interest to us, or even issues that are of interest but on which we have very little impact?

    A related problem is that this view of politics ignores the issue of power. Celebrating deliberation regardless of the associated power structure is manipulative. We are all supposed to spend our time deliberating (striving for that “deliberation euphoria”), ignoring the fact that in most cases the deliberation will result in extremely little impact on policy. Thus, after a couple of cycles of such deliberations, resulting in a brief high, disappointment and disillusionment would set in. Then we would be again lectured for being apathetic and “not fully human”. At the same time, some small minority of people would be wielding real decision making power – quite likely behind closed doors.

    A fourth problem is that this view of politics as demanding constant in-person participation may easily be interpreted as stemming from a lack of solidarity and lack of trust in others. If I can generally trust others to do the right thing politically then I leave most matters to others, and focus on those few matters (political or not) which I care most about. Constant mass deliberation implies that others are unlikely to be able to, or unlikely to want to, represent my interests and values faithfully. Such extremely individualistic worldview is of course both unjustified and ideologically undesirable.

    Finally, the notion that deliberation is what makes us fully human is one dimensional. There are other practices that make us “fully human”. Study and contemplation, for example, among other practices that take place in solitude, are also critical aspects of being fully human. Imposing on society a one dimensional view of politics – or of humanity – is oppressive rather than liberating.

    (An aside regarding the “Arendtian” adjective: I believe the idea that politics is ennobling far precedes Arendt. It was, I believe, made by JS Mill and could be found in the ancient Greek writings as well. So are we talking about something that is more specifically Arendtian?)

    Another, more minor, comment: The moderator countered your point about the democratic euphoria with the point that the Capitol “rioters” also reported feeling euphoria. To this you responded that this was not a democratic euphoria but the euphoria of being part of the herd. I think this too easily accepts the establishment’s point of view of the situation. The “rioters” do have legitimate grievances against an undemocratic system. Presumably the moderator (and you as well?) would have felt differently about the Capitol invasion had it happened at the Kremlin or in Tehran?


  10. Hi Yoram, thanks for the detailed comment.
    You may be putting words in my mouth a little bit. I used the term “democratic euphoria” to refer to what I observed and also experienced as both participant, observer, and facilitator of these various forms of mini-publics–as a participant in a trial jury, as an observe of citizens’ jury, as a facilitator of an after-theatre structured discussion groups, as an observer of a citizens’ jury. I said that Arendt helps us understand this, because she sees a deep human NEED to be part of the world–for her a network created and sustained by human relations.

    It is perfectly acceptable that different people feel this need to different degrees or choose to fulfill it in different ways. There is nothing that forces anyone to participate, nor is the point mass participation in deliberation or any other action. At any rate, most interpreters classify her as a republican not a radical democrat; but that’s not a debate I care about. I’m not an “Arendtian” in the sense of deeply caring what she “truly” meant or that she is someone we should “follow.” I just observed that she helps us see why participants in these minipublics and assemblies feel a kind of “delight.” Arendt mentions in On Revolution a “public happiness” that she finds in reading the letters of Jefferson and Adams, for e.g., and in reading accounts of the revolutionary “soviets,” or councils.

    She laments that after revolutions, leaders, parties, and oligarchs CRUSH this potential by making political action a privilege of the few, either by subordinating political deliberation / action to achieving predetermined goals or by attempting to control the UNPREDICTABILITY and “chaos” of genuine action.

    In Arendt, Ranciere, and a few others, a way to understand what happens in these small groups, councils, panels, and assemblies as a kind of BECOMING CITIZEN. That is where my research was heading–a thesis which will probably never be written. Even in these tiny groups of 6 strangers talking after a theater performance, about the
    political implications of a monologue they watched about teenage gun violence, I saw a nascent (or evanescent) transformation from BOURGEOIS to CITOYEN.

    What I see in these minpublics are people temporarily (or perhaps permanently) changing from self-interested agents in a market for the satisfaction of individual needs or the accumulation of resources (bourgeois) into human beings concerned with the world of others–a web of human relations–and what it should or can be. The bourgeois is concerned with INDIVIDUAL freedom. The citoyen is concerned with COLLECTIVE freedom–a freedom to create, establish, change things with others who are DIFFERENT and STRANGERS. [voila, my unwritten thesis in three sentences.]

    That’s all. I’m not making claims about an hierarchy–which is often a criticism of Arendt. I have bigger criticims of her, but that would take us off topic.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. On your other point, if I am reading it correctly, is that the professional managerial class, like the podcast host, LOVE to classify popular sentiment as “cheap” populism, “trumpism,” xenophobia, or whatever rather than try to understand that Brexit, Trump, etc. are also reflections of genuine discontent, which can also be legitimate. What I meant that there is something different that happens when STRANGERS sit down and discuss/debate matters of public concern. I make no judgment about the capitol riots, especially since they were heavily infiltrated by FBI informants, and since the ruling class used this to legitimate their new and improved censorship regime in the US. See the Twitter Files series of articles from Matt Taibbi. Most anti-trumpsism, in my view is just as stupid as Trump and usually more dangerous.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Ahmed,

    > You may be putting words in my mouth a little bit.

    It is possible that I projected onto you the “deliberative democracy” attitude that is certainly a central part of the message of some quite prominent voices in the sortition circles.

    Still, even as a response to your comments above it seems that my points are relevant:

    > participants in these minipublics and assemblies feel a kind of “delight.”

    That the deliberative “delight” observed may quickly turn into disillusionment, frustration and anger if it turns out that those deliberations in fact have very little impact on reality and are being used manipulatively.

    > oligarchs CRUSH this potential by making political action a privilege of the few

    While we can all be part of the discussion and we can all have some degree of political impact, it is unavoidable that high powered political action would be concentrated. We can’t all set, say, national environmental policy, but such policy needs to be set and its impact is bound to be felt by all. The mere fact that decision making is concentrated is not oppressive, as long as the decisions made are in the interests and according to the values of all (i.e., are widely perceived to be such over the long term).

    > What I see in these minpublics are people temporarily (or perhaps permanently) changing from self-interested agents […]

    This does seem like taking a significant step in the direction of celebrating mass deliberation. Transforming society via deliberation seems a questionable vision for the reasons I listed above. I think we should aim to transform society by changing the decision making process and making it widely recognized that public policy is set to the benefit of all. It is this outcome, rather than the deliberative process that has the potential to replace the atmosphere of competition and self-centeredness with a widely shared sentiment of solidarity and cooperation.


  13. The point is that so-called representative government EXCLUDES people from participating by erecting immense barriers to entry. It’s quite ok and expected that not everyone will want to participate in public life or play a decision making role on every issue.

    Regarding actual outcomes. One of the best posts on EbL asked the question, “Is China a Democracy?” Or something like that.
    One could ask, which country over the past 40 years has implemented policies highly alleged by its people? Which country has consistently implemented highly UNPOPULAR and HARMFUL porticoes over that same 40 years?
    It’s quite easy to decide where China fits and where the USA fit.

    This is the elephant in the room.


  14. *highly approved by its people.


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